SANTORO v. ACCENTURE FED. SERVS., LLC, NO. 12-2561

Decided: May 5, 2014

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s order compelling the Appellant to arbitrate his federal claims, and held that where the Appellant does not pursue his Dodd-Frank whistleblower claims, neither 7 U.S.C. § 26(n)(2) nor 18 U.S.C. § 1514A(e)(2) override the Federal Arbitration Act’s (FAA) mandate that arbitration agreements are enforceable.

The appellant started his employment at Accenture in 1997, and progressed through several positions over the years.  In 2005, the appellant signed an employment contract that automatically renewed each year, and included an arbitration provision stating that all disputes that arose out of appellant’s employment at Accenture would be settled through arbitration.  Appellant alleged that the new supervisor he received in 2010 disliked him.  In 2011, Accenture terminated appellant’s employment as a cost cutting measure, and replaced him with a younger employee.  Appellant then filed suit for age discrimination under the District of Columbia’s Human Rights Act.  Accenture moved to compel the appellant to submit to arbitration, and appellant opposed Accenture’s motion to compel, and stated that the arbitration clause was void under the whistleblower provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act.  The district court rejected appellant’s argument, and granted defendant’s motion to compel arbitration.  However, while the motion to compel was pending, appellant filed another action stating claims under the ADEA, FMLA, and ERISA.  Accenture moved to compel arbitration for these claims as well. The district court granted Accenture’s motion, and found that because appellant did not bring a Dodd-Frank whistleblower claim, appellant could not use Dodd-Frank to invalidate a valid arbitration clause.  Appellant filed a timely appeal.

The Fourth Circuit found that Congress enacted the FAA in 1925, and stated that arbitration agreements are valid and irrevocable unless equity or law determines otherwise.  Further, the Court noted that the FAA embodies the national policy of favoring arbitration, and therefore courts should “rigorously enforce arbitration agreements according to their terms.”  Am. Express Co. v. Italian Colors Rest., 133 S. Ct. 2304, 2309 (2013).  However, the Court mentioned that the FAA could be overridden by a contrary congressional command.  Here, the appellant argued that Dodd-Frank represented a “contrary congressional command” and overrode the valid arbitration clause in his employment contract.  Dodd-Frank strengthened whistleblower protections for employees that report illegal or fraudulent activities conducted by their employers.  Dodd-Frank includes 7 U.S.C. § 26(n)(2) and 18 U.S.C. § 1514A(e)(2), which prohibit retaliation against a whistleblower employee, and create causes of action and remedies for these employees.  Appellant argued that because his employment contract did not carve out Dodd-Frank claims from arbitration, and requires those claims to be arbitrated, that the entire arbitration agreement was invalid or unenforceable.  However, the Fourth Circuit stated that where an arbitration clause neglects to exempt Dodd-Frank whistleblower claims from arbitration, it does not follow that non-whistleblowers claims are similarly prohibited from arbitration.  Further, the Fourth Circuit found that nothing in Dodd-Frank to indicate that Congress intended to bar the arbitration of every claim simply because the agreement did not exempt Dodd-Frank claims.  Thus, the appellant’s argument, in light of Dodd-Frank’s language and context, failed to meet the burden of showing that Dodd-Frank represents a “contrary congressional command” and overrode the validity of arbitration agreements according to the FAA.

Full Opinion

-Alysja S. Garansi

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